When mountain goats molt could shed secrets about how they adapt to climate change

Katarzyna Nowak and her colleague, Atsushi Sugimoto are in the Yukon to study how mountain goats are reacting to hotter summers.

A scientist is in Yukon to study how mountain goats are reacting to hotter summers

This mountain goat keeps cool on a rocky ledge high above the Windy Arm of Tagish Lake. (Submitted by Katarzyna Nowak)

Katarzyna Nowak and her colleague, Atsushi Sugimoto, disregard the conventional hiking path on Mount White. Instead, they scramble up the rocky slope until they come to a ledge with a good view of a known mineral lick.

It's covered with mountain goat droppings.

"Spending time on windy ledges is very likely part of a mountain goat's thermo-regulatory behaviour. They're cooling down that way," said Nowak.

There are mountain goats at the mineral lick, they're visible from the rocky ledge. Consuming minerals out of the side of the mountain is another way mountain goats, and other ungulates, may try to keep cool in the increasingly warm summers.

Nowak is a wildlife scientist from the United States. She's in Yukon to study if mountain goats are adapting to the heat by shedding their winter coats earlier in the spring.

Katarzyna Nowak is a wildlife scientist from the United States. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

If they're not, she predicts the animals will change their behaviour to adapt.

"As the summers heat up — and we're in the middle of a global heat wave right now — wild animals are going to have to cope with that heat without air conditioning, without artificial shade, without rehydration tablets, without all of the things that humans do to alleviate heat stress," said Nowak.

Mountain goats live high above the clouds on mountain peaks across North America. The northern extent of their range is Alaska and Yukon.

Nowak is travelling the same paths as the goats, setting up motion sensor cameras to capture images of them in the wild.

Mount White is one of three habitats where Nowak and Sugimoto have set up the cameras, or camera traps. The other two habitats they're studying are Pooly Canyon, above the Windy Arm of Tagish Lake, and high above the Alsek Valley in Kluane National Park.

"We are able to use some of those camera trap shots, to look at the timing of shedding in mountain goats," says Nowak.

This image captured by a camera trap shows a nanny eating bluebells, with her kid sticking close by. (Submitted by Katarzyna Nowak)

This research project spans mountain goat habitats across the continent. Nowak is calling it a citizen science project, because she's asking people to submit photographs they've taken of mountain goats.

"In a way it's an experiment," she said. "We are trying to see if you can use photos from members of the public to study change over time."

Snap a pic of a goat? 

Nowak is asking people to submit photos with a location and date stamp. She is in the Yukon setting up camera traps because there are less photos here than she's managed to find in other places in North America.

Through the course of her time here, however, she hopes that she will dig up a few more photos from the past.

"People who have mountain goat images on slide and film, we're especially encouraging those people to get in contact with us, and get those images scanned and include them in our analysis," said Nowak.

Once she has the photos, Nowak uses an editing program to get a pixel count of the images. She uses the pixels to calculate the percent of the coat that has been shed.

Along with capturing images with camera traps, Nowak is studying the two goat herds at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve to compare their shed rate to that of wild mountain goats.

This research project will take time.

"So we really just started in May of this year," says Nowak. "We hope to continue this study for at least a couple of years, at least until we amass a satisfactory sample from across time and space."

A mineral lick on the side of Mount White is a sure place to find mountain goats. Mineral licks are where goats and other ungulates go in the summer to dig minerals out of the sides of mountains. (Atsushi Sugimoto)

Nowak is getting to know the goats by studying pixelated images of their shed patterns. She's also getting to know them by criss-crossing the animals' trails on Mount White.

She discovered that her rocky ledge with a view of the mineral lick may not be the best place to observe the goats. Upon returning to the location after checking a camera trap further up the mountain, the mineral lick was empty.

Nowak is aware of how her presence may be affecting the behaviour of the animals she is studying.

"It wouldn't be a good idea to come here if you find that they are still being displaced from this resource," she said. "Which again might be becoming even more important as the climate warms."

Through the course of her research, she says people can relate to how the changing climate is affecting mountain goats.

"So when do you take your winter coat off, compared to when a mountain goat takes its winter coat off?" She said. "We can take our coats off once it gets warm, they can't."